Tuesday, May 10

Gene Sarazen: Making a Name (and a Club) for Himself

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection. (Flickr Creative Commons)

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. Used with permission.

GENE SARAZEN CREATED WHAT HE NEEDED to get the job done. He began with his name. Given the name Eugene Saraceni and thinking "Saraceni" sounded too much like a violin player, not a golfer, he took the pseudonym Sarazen. And, in doing so, he made Gene Sarazen one of the great names in golf history.

His next challenge was his bunker play. Early in his career he had to fix his disastrous bunker play. Tournament after tournament was being lost because of his inability to get out of the sand.

Then in the winter of '31, taking flying lessons in Florida, he noticed how the tail fins made a plane go up and down. Charles Price in his book The World Of Golf: A Panorama of Six Centuries of the Game's History writes, "When a pilot wants to take off, Sarazen reasoned, he doesn't raise the tail of the plane, he lowers it. So Sarazen wanted to lower the 'tail,' or sole of his niblick to produce a club whose face would come up from the sand as the sole made contact."

In a machine shop in New Port Rickey, Florida, Sarazen added solder to his 9-iron and began to experiment. He practiced endlessly from the sand only pausing to readjust and reset the solder on his iron.

Charles Price in his history points out that other players were searching for clubs to use in bunkers. Bobby Jones, for example, used a sand iron during the British Open in 1930, a club he got from Horton Smith, who in turn, Price writes, "had received it, and a copy of it, from a Texas amateur named McLain. The club had a rounded sole and a concave face." But by 1932, the USGA declared that club illegal.

Price also points out that a sand iron went back to the early days of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, but Sarazen wanted something better. Perhaps it was because he was the son of a workingman. Gene, in his teenage years, had apprenticed to his father as a carpenter but contracted an almost fatal case of pleurisy and doctors ordered him to seek less strenuous work, so he started to caddie and play golf and brought to the game his workman skills.

Sarazen created an inclined flange on a flat face, so the front edge of the clubhead sat a fraction of an inch off the ground and permitted the clubhead to slide through the sand rather than dig into it, as he was experiencing with the niblick.

Price also writes that Sarazen "best displayed the technique of the shot that went hand-in-glove with the club, one utterly different from the technique of other irons. Sarazen discovered that he shouldn’t swing the clubhead away from the ball. Rather, it should be raised abruptly and then dropped behind the ball." Sarazen also took the club outside the line and then flicked it down, the way he might swing an ax when chopping wood, never breaking his wrists with the wedge.

The next year he would take his new sand club to England and win the British Open.

Then, as many know, at the '34 Masters he would implant the name "Sarazen" forever in the history of the game, not with a wedge, but a 4 wood that is often called the most dramatic single shot ever struck in a major tournament. Sarazen not only gave us the modern sand wedge, but also, with his double-eagle, "the shot heard around the world."

Not bad for an apprentice carpenter.

John Coyne is a bestselling author of three golf novels and more than 20 other books. Pay him a visit at John Coyne Books.

Also by John Coyne:
A six-part series on Bobby Locke
A two-part profile on Harry Vardon

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